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Lifesaving Screenings for Colorectal Cancer

Lifesaving Screenings for Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer—America’s second-leading cause of cancer deaths—isn’t just a concern for older adults. Rates are rising quickly in people younger than 55, says Grace Shih, MD, a board- certified gastroenterologist with Valley Health and Winchester Gastroenterology Associates. Your best move: Start colorectal cancer screening at age 45 and talk with your doctor about earlier checks if you’re at high risk.

“The earlier we catch colorectal cancer, the better,” Dr. Shih says. “The five-year survival rate for stage 1 colorectal cancer is over 90 percent, but it drops to 70 percent or lower for more advanced stages. We can catch this cancer earlier with a colonoscopy, by finding and removing growths called polyps before they make a malignant transformation into cancer.”

When to Start Screening
In 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force lowered the recommended starting age for screening to 45 for all Americans at average risk for colorectal cancer. (Before that, it was age 50 for most.) “A lot of people don’t know the screening age has changed,” says Sophia Villanueva, MD, a fellowship-trained colorectal surgeon at Valley Health Surgical Oncology. “Many think this is a disease of the elderly, but right now one in five people diagnosed with colorectal cancer are between 20 and 54.”

If you have a family history of this cancer, your doctor may suggest screening at whichever comes first: age 40, or 10 years before the age when a first-degree relative, such as parent or sibling, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, Dr. Shih says. Adults age 76 and older should discuss their need for screening with their doctor.

Don’t wait for symptoms before getting tested. “Colorectal cancer usually has no symptoms in its early stages,” Dr. Shih notes. “Everyone should be screened.” However, if you do notice changes in your bowel habits, blood in or on your stool, abdominal aches and pains, or unexplained weight loss, see your doctor. “The problem with colorectal cancer is that the symptoms are very vague and can mimic other conditions,” Dr. Villanueva says. “Some people assume that their bleeding is from hemorrhoids or that their bloating and constipation are from irritable bowel syndrome and do not get checked. This is a mistake. It is important to tell your doctor about your symptoms and ask about a colorectal cancer screening.”

Good News About Colorectal Cancer Checks
Colorectal screening is easier than ever, with more options and simpler bowel prep. What to know:

• Colonoscopy is the gold-standard screening test. During this procedure, a doctor carefully examines your colon with a light and camera while you’re under mild sedation. “Colonoscopy is the only screening check that visualizes the colon,” Dr. Shih says. “And it’s the only screening that can detect and remove precancerous polyps during the procedure.” If your colonoscopy finds no signs of cancer or precancers, you’ll most often need your next one in 10 years. What to know: “Bowel preparation for colonoscopy doesn’t require drinking as much liquid as in the past,” Dr. Shih explains. “There’s even a pill form if you don’t like the taste of prep fluids. You’ll still have to drink water with it so that it’s effective, of course.”

• Stool tests are a noninvasive alternative. If you can’t or are unwilling to have a colonoscopy, several stool tests—which you take every one to three years, depending on the type—are options recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. These include the multi target stool DNA test (mt-sDNA) Cologuard, the guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) and the highly sensitive fecal immunochemical test (FIT). What to know: “People should understand that if you have a positive result on a fecal test, you will still need a colonoscopy,” Dr. Shih notes.

Preventing and Treating Colorectal Cancer
If you are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, treatment options at Valley Health include minimally invasive robotic surgery, possibly in addition to chemotherapy, and radiation for some advanced colon and rectal cancer. “We perform the surgery through small incisions resulting in less pain and blood loss, resulting in a faster recovery,” Dr. Villanueva says.

“Patients go home from the hospital two to three days after surgery and return to normal activities in as little as two to four weeks. Our patients have very good outcomes. Winchester Medical Center has been recognized in 2022-2023 as a high-performing hospital in colon cancer surgery by U.S. News & World Report. This reflects significantly better than the national average for patient outcomes. For rectal cancer, Valley Health Winchester Medical Center is one of the few centers in the U.S. that has a rectal cancer program accredited by the American College of Surgeons. This means we have achieved high standards set by ACS for the comprehensive multi-disciplinary care of rectal cancer.”

Meanwhile, you can lower your risk for colorectal cancer with a healthy lifestyle. “Getting regular exercise, not smoking, and eating less animal protein and less processed food all help,” Dr. Shih says. Combined with screening, it’s a powerful package for preventing a common cancer. “I tell my patients, getting screened for cancer is not only a gift to yourself,” she says, “it’s also a gift to your family.”

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